Wonder Bar is about the musical numbers. They’re pretty elaborate, especially one with many dancers surrounded by mirrors. Its visually arresting in a way that a dancing CGI army wouldn’t be. It’s certainly not to my tastes, however, and I was glad whenever the acts within the film ended.

There’s almost no plot beyond some stitching to sew the musical scenes together. The Wonder Bar of Montmartre is run by a man called Al Wonder (Al Jolson). He entertains his guests, takes care of them and his stars, all while managing the bar and taking crises of all sizes in his stride. As a pre-code film characters may get away with all manner of indiscretions, from cheating on their spouses right up to murder. The Wonder Bar’s decadence doesn’t start and end with the dancing.

Even though the bar is supposedly a sophisticated, international place, a lot of the entertainment is purely US-focused. Also out of place is that the sets and effects for the musical numbers would not be possible on any manner of real stage. This is especially true for the grand finale, Going to Heaven on a Mule. In it, Al Jolson (in blackface) is a happy-go-lucky old peasant who goes to black heaven with his old mule. There are many sets, including one of a bridge across to the pearly gates that would have been impossible to build on the simple stage of the bar. The same goes for the other heaven scenes and they’re somehow switched in and out instantaneously. Being very American and folksy, I’d doubt this number would go down too well in Paris during the thirties. Watching it I found myself between incredulity and amusement as we’re introduced to all the angels in black heaven, including black Saint Peter, black Archangel Gabriel and perhaps a hundred other dancing and singing adults and children, all in blackface. While I’m sure the intent wasn’t to hurt (so no, I’m not going to jump up and shriek about racism) it’s hard to imagine that someone ever imagined this as a good idea.

There’s not a lot to Wonder Bar. I managed to stay awake all the way through. Can’t recommend it at all. It’s barely even a film in that it’s a film where its characters put on a stage show. I didn’t like the stage show. Why not go to a real show that you might like instead?


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